R.I.P. to The Hippest Diner on Earth

May 20th, 2010

I have been having so much fun compiling my new “Favorites” page, it’s all I seem to be doing in my spare time. When pondering what I might want to add next, I thought of that thick and creamy black & white milkshake at Empire Diner. It was unfailingly the perfect combination of rich vanilla ice cream and just the right amount of classic chocolate syrup to satisfy my chocoholic husband without turning me off (and I am no fan of chocolate). I adored this milkshake. It was worth the drive all the way from the farthest corner of the Upper East Side down to the edge of Chelsea just to savor it. It must go on my list.

But it cannot go on my list. The Empire Diner served its last meal on May 15, 2010. The 24-hour establishment – whose Art Deco edifice is famously topped with an Empire State Building replica – lost its lease after 34 years. Oh, how I wish I had known of the closing! I would have gone there to indulge one last time. No more swanky diner decor. No more midnight jazz piano. No more homemade chocolate pudding…sweet potato fries topped with brown sugar…hot open-faced turkey sandwiches…burgers the exact size of the buns…..you will be sorely missed, Empire Diner.

Lavender, Vanilla Bean, and Rosewater…Oh My!

May 6th, 2010

Lavender is making a hug come back in my kitchen this spring. I am tucking it under the skin with lemon zest and thyme when I am panfrying a butterflied chicken. It’s floating in my simple syrup for a bold and distinctive lemonade. And now it is taking over my cookie plate.

The following recipe for my Lavender Vanilla Bean Tea Biscuits with Rosewater Icing is a new favorite. As soon as these shortbread cookies leave the oven a sweet perfume pervades the kitchen. Fragrant and mildly floral, they are an unexpected treat for a summertime garden party, paired with a tall glass of herbed tea or crisp lemonade. It is important to use the seeds of a vanilla bean instead of the more typical extract so that the natural and rich flavor shines. The dried lavender gets a little boost from the optional rosewater icing.

for the cookies:
1 cup sugar
¾ cup (1½ sticks) butter at room temperature
2 eggs
seeds of one vanilla bean
1 teaspoon dried lavender, crushed
2½ cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt

for the optional icing:
2 cups powdered sugar
3-4 tablespoons milk or water
1/2 teaspoon rosewater

To make the cookie dough, beat the sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla bean seeds, and lavender in a large mixing bowl until fluffy and well combined. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt, and then stir it into the butter/sugar mixture. Divide the dough in two equal parts and roll into logs in plastic wrap. Store in the refrigerator for at least one hour, or until chilled enough to slice.

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Once the dough is chilled, cut the logs crosswise into 1/8 inch-thick circles and space an inch apart on a lined or greased cookie sheet. Bake for 7-9 minutes. Remove the cookies from the oven to a cooling rack.

Meanwhile, prepare the icing. Whisk the powdered sugar, milk, and rosewater together in a mixing bowl and drizzle over the tea biscuits once they are completely cool.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Store the cookies in an airtight container for up to one week once the icing has fully dried.

I Love What I Do. Do You?

April 26th, 2010

About once a month I receive an email from a friend asking me if I would mind talking to someone they know who wants to go to culinary school. It is always my pleasure to provide some color and perspective to a potential career changer. I love what I do, and such conversations remind me of how fortunate I am to have traveled on this journey.

If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times: “I just LOVE to cook. It’s my escape…my relaxation. My friends and family tell me I am the best cook. Do you think I should go to culinary school?” My advice varies, depending on the circumstances of the individual, but there is one universal caveat: know that when you make your favorite hobby your job, it will be a job. Your relationship with food and cooking will change. Be prepared for that. And never forget that everything in a kitchen is hot, heavy, and sharp.

There are many other issues to consider, like your own talents and abilities as they relate to food. Do you love trying out lots of recipes and have tremendous organizational skills? Consider becoming a recipe tester. If you are into nutrition as much as you are cooking, develop a career as a personal chef. Another thing to weigh is the cost of culinary school and the realities of the expected return in salary. Going to culinary school makes sense for so many, but definitely not all.

Dorothy Cann Hamilton, Founder and CEO of The French Culinary Institute, has written the bible on this subject, “Love What You Do: Building a Career in the Culinary Industry.” An amalgamation of her 25 years of experience in culinary education, “Love What You Do” functions as part culinary career brochure, part advice column, part workbook – the perfect dose of reality, encouragement, and information. It asks as many questions as it answers, forcing the reader to take stock and find direction. Before you invest upwards of $30,000 in culinary training, spend $12.95 and an hour or two reading this book. It is the very best first step you can take on your culinary path.

Watch Dorothy’s interview on ABC News about building a culinary career.

Matzo Brei Isn’t Just for Breakfast

April 3rd, 2010

Most people who grew up eating matzo brei know it exclusively as a breakfast treat, enjoyed only eight days a year during Passover. A French Toast of sorts, matzo brei is made of broken pieces of matzo soaked in water, then drained, and finally scrambled with egg, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and perhaps drizzled with maple syrup. It is truly delicious, I think. For the record, there are some who do not like it (my father, for example, is not a fan). But there are other ways to enjoy matzo brei than merely as your best effort to tell your taste buds that the deprivation of bread, pasta, and rice (for all you Ashkenazis like me) isn’t so tough.

In my family, we eat matzo brei as an hors d’oeuvre. Yes, four courses of food isn’t enough for us. We like to get started with some herring, and just to make sure we can survive the abbreviated seder and don’t faint, we first feast on pieces of matzo brei topped with chopped liver or chopped eggs and onions, the princely pates of Eastern European cooking.

My grandfather, Ted, perfected this dish. Since matzo brei is traditionally a scrambled mess (in my father’s defense, it certainly is not the prettiest dish you’ll ever see), he thought to break matzo pieces into same-sized squares to create the perfect base for the chopped liver and eggs and onions. He soaked the pieces in water (so they become tender and flexible like a noodle), then stacked them in threes before dipping them in egg and rolling them in matzo meal (a course flour of ground matzo). The matzo meal coating transforms standard matzo brei into something extraordinary. Then frying the whole thing in schmaltz (chicken fat) imparts that extra depth of flavor and exceptional golden brown color.

Breaking the matzo pieces in perfect squares can be challenging. Check out this amusing video from Japan of all places on how to do it easily.

The Egg Came First

March 21st, 2010

Well, it did in a kitchen anyway. No one, I don’t care who they are, can claim genuine culinary competence if they cannot properly scramble an egg or prepare an omelet (the former is a precursor to the latter, by the way). Roasting a chicken is also an essential skill, but I would argue that since breakfast comes first and an egg cooks in a matter of seconds or minutes, making eggs is the very first step on the road to cooking well.

I learned this many years ago in school at The French Culinary Institute from Chef Henri Viain who told me that when he was a boy in France and he went on an interview for a stage (an internship), he would be asked to prepare scrambled eggs or roast a chicken. After all, if you cannot do that, what can you do? Exotic ingredients and offbeat combinations do not a competent cook make. It’s the foundations and clean execution of timeless technique that makes a real cook.

Watch master chef Andre Soltner make an omelet and then go make one yourself. Refer to my recipe below for step-by-step instructions. You’ll be on your way to competent cooking!

The ultimate omelet is French: rolled, as opposed to flat, and generally with a completely smooth, unbrowned surface, and slightly runny in the middle. Taste and preference prevail, of course, but this is the classic preparation. The key to making a superb omelet is scrambling the eggs first, then setting the omelet. Never overstuff it, or you’ll have a hard time rolling it. If egg white omelets are more your speed, try making the following recipe with 3 large egg whites and just one yolk. You’ll never go back to just egg whites again!

Essential equipment: small mixing bowl; fork; nonstick 8-inch sauté pan, flat wooden spoon
Essential technique: mise en place; sauté

for the omelet:
3 large eggs (ideally, room temperature)
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
salt and pepper to taste

for the filling, choose one of the following per omelet:
¼ cup grated cheese
3 tablespoons caramelized onions
¼ cup chopped tomatoes
2 button mushrooms, sliced

Break eggs into a bowl and mix well with a fork. Heat a nonstick 8-inch skillet over medium heat and add 2 teaspoons butter. When the butter foams, add the eggs and let them be, just until they start to set along the edge. Stir continuously with the back of a fork or wooden spoon until they are at a runny scramble stage. Spread them evenly in the pan. When the omelet is lightly set, stop stirring and remove the omelet from the heat. (The point at which you stop stirring is the key to having a smooth omelet.)

Place the filling in the middle of the omelet. Fold the edge of the omelet over onto itself, tilt the pan from the handle and lightly tap the pan so that the omelet moves down to the edge of the pan. Form the omelet with a wooden spoon.

Roll the omelet onto a warm plate seam-side down. Adjust the form if necessary by shaping with a clean towel. Serve immediately.

Makes 1 omelet.

Say It Ain’t Soda Bread

March 15th, 2010

It might be called Irish Soda Bread, but don’t let that caraway and raisin-studded white round loaf fool you. It’s Irish alright. It’s just not traditional soda bread. “Consider its origins,” says Rachel Gaffney of Rachel Gaffney’s Authentic Irish Goods. “We were a poor nation. This was an easy to make all-in-one mixture that was made with buttermilk, a byproduct when making butter. Wholemeal flour was more widely available. Raisins were never used. These were imported and if anything were a luxury for the Irish. When white flour was added, this was indeed for a special occasion.”

So, what is the real soda bread like? I recently took a stab at Rachel’s traditional recipe (below) and thought it screamed ‘hearty’ from the outside in. Its nutty and earthy flavor is a far cry from the sweet bread we consider Irish Soda Bread here in the US. This authentic version has an honest, unambiguous taste of a rugged and rich homeland. Just good, old fashioned BREAD! And with a healthy spreading of salted Irish butter (I can’t live without Kerry Gold, by the way)…lets just say it won’t last long. But that’s ok. It’s easier than pie to make.

Thank you, Rachel, for enlightening us. ‘Tis definitely one of those rare cases where the truth doesn’t hurt!

Brown Soda Bread
Rachel Gaffney’s Authentic Irish Soda Bread

3 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons wheat germ
2 teaspoons rolled oats, plus 2 teaspoons rolled oats for sprinkling
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 quart buttermilk

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl mix all dry ingredients. Make a well in the center and add liquid ingredients. Mix together well, trying not to handle too much. Form a ball gently with your floured hands. Do not work this bread like traditional yeast breads. Sprinkle with remaining oats. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, make a cross in the bread with a sharp paring knife and bake for 45 minutes. Cool on wire rack.

I Resolve to Seek Inspiration

January 2nd, 2010

Literally and figuratively in the eleventh hour (p.m.) of January 1, 2010 I was looking for inspiration. Cooking inspiration, that is. Although I love perusing through cookbooks, even reading them cover to cover sometimes, I rarely use them when I cook. That is, I almost never have a cookbook cracked open on the counter for me to refer to pre-chopping or mid-saute. But when I find myself short on ideas, unable to unearth all the dishes, dinners, meals, and masterpieces in my mind, I turn to my cookbook collection to get the ball rolling.

Seldom bought, mostly given by a publicist, publisher, or t.v. producer, the cookbooks in my collection are a bibliographic timeline of my culinary career. Tonight I flipped through some old favorites: Michel Nischan’s “Taste Pure and Simple,” which he gave to me the first time I ever worked with him a few weeks before the book hit stores; Tyler Florence’s “Tyler’s Ultimate,” which I read cover to cover the night before I worked with him for the first time on The View four years ago; and “Modern Mexican Flavors” by Richard Sandoval, one of the only cookbooks I have bought for myself post-culinary school simply because his food inspires me.

And then I stumbled upon Susan Herrmann Loomis’s “Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin.” The moment I cracked open the book I remembered why I first liked it so very much. It is written the way a cookbook should be – with depth, history, culture, anecdote, and nostalgia. All that, and the recipe writing is meticulous, the techniques tried and true, the French cuisine utterly authentic, AND she offers a wine recommendation with each dish. What a good book! The words and flavors jump off the page and it is as though you are right there with Susan Herrmann Loomis in her Normandy kitchen.

I had the pleasure of meeting the author once several years ago in New York when she was touring for her book. I listened to her talk, watched her cook, and tasted her delectable fare. She inspired me then, and she did again tonight when I landed on page 55 (see excerpt below). May her words inspire us all for a scrumptious 2010!

How to Eat Like the French

I am often asked how the French eat so well, yet look so thin and healthy. Here are some tips I’ve learned:

1. Buy ingredients as close to the source as you can. Go to a farm, a farmer’s market, a shop featuring farm ingredients. Buy organic ingredients whenever you can. They may cost more, but realize that their cost is the real cost of producing food, for most organic farmers don’t get government subsidies.

2. Serve a green salad with lunch and dinner.

3. Serve bread without butter at mealtimes.

4. Drink plenty of water throughout the day.

5. Avoid snacking between meals.

6. Always have seasonal fruit available. I often cut up fruit – apples, pears, melons, peaches – when my children are agitating for a meal and I haven’t quite finished preparation.

7. Serve vegetable soup often; it is a delicious and satisfying way to enjoy vegetables.

8. Have a glass of wine with your meal. Wine, particularly red wine, is believed to have health benefits when taken in moderation.

9. Avoid processed foods and soft drinks.

10. Don’t be afraid of your food. If you are comfortable with your food, you will enjoy it more and eat less.

11. Take time at the table so you can enjoy the meal you’ve prepared.

I Can Pull Pork In My Sleep

November 16th, 2009

Pulled pork might take days to make but all the action takes place while you sleep. This past weekend I was part of a tailgating event for the last home football game of the season at my alma mater, Colgate University. On Saturday, the school featured me cooking tailgate food with a twist, and sold my two books alongside the free tasty fare: cider braised pulled pork sliders with apple slaw, and chicken satay skewers with coconut lemongrass sauce.

The event might have taken place Saturday, but the prep work began Thursday when I coated the pork butt (that’s really pork shoulder) in a spice rub of paprika, brown sugar, garlic and onion powders, chili powder, cayenne and white pepper, salt, and oregano. The heavily seasoned meat was wrapped tightly in plastic, then in aluminum foil. It sat for 24 hours in the refrigerator to cure.

The next day, I removed from the refrigerator the seasoned meat, now glistening a deep, glossy red from the paprika and sugar spice rub, and placed it on a rimmed sheet pan. It then went in a preheated 250F oven overnight. While I slept, the meat cooked, rendering its fat and loosening itself from the bone. When I awoke, the smells of barbecue permeated the house. I had cooked another pulled pork in my sleep! Now all that was left was a quick braise to make the “sauce.”

I love Texas barbecue, but only for brisket and sausage links. When it comes to pulled pork, I want it Carolina style with a vinegar/mustard based sauce. After 8 hours in the oven, the pork was juicy and tender to the bone. I let it cool a bit while I warmed half a gallon of apple cider in a large pot with yellow mustard, honey, molasses, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, cider vinegar, and liquid smoke (no other choice for a city girl who wants to impart that smokey flavor to the meat). I effortlessly pulled the pork off the bone and placed it in the warm cider braising liquid. I let the meat and juice mixture simmer for an hour before packing up and taking it upstate to Colgate.

The lesson: it is so easy to make pulled pork you can do it in your sleep!

“The Competent Cook” Launches This Month After a Long Journey

November 8th, 2009

One year. Two books. 87,000 words total. Even I can hardly believe it, but it’s true. It has been a very hectic 2009!

My second book, The Competent Cook: Essential Tools, Techniques, and Recipes for the Modern At-Home Cook, officially launches November 18th. It has been a work in progress over many years, beginning with the eponymous food column I had on cdkitchen.com, which launched in the spring of 2005. When I was approached to write the column and come up with a title, I thought “The Confident Cook” was alliterative and catchy. Thank goodness my father convinced me otherwise, pointing out that confidence without competence is worthless. Very true indeed. So, “The Competent Cook” became my weekly online outlet to help readers become better cooks and learn the standards I valued.

Purchase The Competent Cook

By late summer of 2006, I was seven months pregnant and gearing up to wind down. I worked until five days before my son was born (my last gig was for Tyler Florence on “The View.” Needless to say, I think he was pretty shocked to see me 40 weeks pregnant and waddling around the set with strip steaks and brandied mushrooms!) I was right back to work for Michel Nischan on a TV shoot three weeks later. I just couldn’t keep away from the work I love. In early 2007, when my friend and agent, Molly, encouraged me to consider what kind of cookbook I would want to write (she knew me too well to ask if I wanted to write one!), the theme of the The Competent Cook was the clear winner.

I have been privileged to be a culinary instructor in addition to all the other toques I wear (chef/caterer, food columnist, recipe tester, and food stylist). It has been a sincere pleasure to pass along to students the knowledge and standards that I have learned from others and from my own trials and triumphs in the kitchen. Everything from the equipment I favor to the way I store food impacts my daily cooking life. My favorite evergreen recipes and the techniques that go with them are now finally compiled in a book that has been a work in progress not just since 2005, but my whole life. The book was meant to be born.

Getting a book published can take a long time, and at one point my patience waned. In March of 2008 I was ready to give up and just move on to other things. I was given the opportunity to write Notes on Cooking with Russell Reich, and I jumped at it. As fate would have it, the very same week I had an offer for The Competent Cook to be published. Unwilling to choose between the two projects, I said, “Sure! I can write two books in six months!” And that’s exactly what I did. Notes on Cooking was just released in June, and now a few months later The Competent Cook hits the stands.

Since receiving my advance copy a few weeks ago, it has been gratifying to pick up The Competent Cook and find recipes like my basic pie crust and chicken satay with coconut lemongrass sauce without having to pull the files off the computer or my hand-written notes from a filing box. At last, my favorite go-to recipes are in one convenient collection! I hope you enjoy the book and find it to be the perfect compliment to Notes on Cooking.

An Oldie But Goodie With a Twist

October 5th, 2009

Lately I have been reading blog posts and tweets about Sheila Lukins, the American culinary pioneer and co-author of the Silver Palate cookbooks. She died in late August, and many friends and fans remember her and her scrumptious food fondly. Chicken Marbella was by far her most famous dish: an unexpected concoction of chicken with prunes, olives, and capers so popular that you couldn’t escape it in the 1980′s.

I set out to make Chicken Marbella because it had been quite some time since I had it. Once I began to gather my mise en place, I realized that I didn’t have prunes (only dried apricots), and had mixed olives (not all green). I was out of red wine vinegar, but had sherry vinegar. And I had half a bottle of red wine already open so why bother with a new bottle of white? I was determined to get those flavors brewing in my kitchen and ultimately in my mouth, so I persevered with the same principles and ratios albeit on a slightly different path.

Chicken “Lorena” emerged:

8 chicken thighs, or 1 chicken quartered
4 cloves very finely chopped garlic (like a paste)
2 tablespoons dried oregano
kosher salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/2 cup dried apricots
1/2 cup pitted mixed olives
1/4 cup capers with the juice
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup red wine
chopped parsley for garnish, optional

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl combine the garlic, oregano, kosher salt and pepper to taste, vinegar, olive oil, apricots, olives, capers, and juice. Add the chicken and toss well to coat. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight.

Arrange chicken in a single layer in a large, shallow baking pan and spoon the fruit/olives over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour the wine around them.

Bake uncovered for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting every 10 minutes with pan juices.

Serve the dish warm or cold. It actually improves after a few days in the fridge.